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This Week in Palestine, a service of the International Middle East Media Center, IMEMC.Org, for Thursday, December 29, 2005.
A Bethlehem enclosed by concrete walls celebrates Christmas for the first time in five years, and hosts a non-violent popular resistance conference.  Meanwhile, Israel continues its air strikes on the northern Gaza Strip, and plans a new full-scale ground invasion into Gaza.  And, a suicide bomb in the West Bank kills two Israeli soldiers and three Palestinian civilians.  These stories and more, coming up.  Stay tuned.
Silent Night: Christmas in Bethlehem
The Separation Wall’s 24-foot-high slabs of concrete snaking around Bethlehem cast a dark shadow on Christmas this year.  Still, for the first time in five years, the city’s residents celebrated the holiday unhindered by Israeli curfew or invasion.
Thousands packed Manger Square in front the Church of the Nativity to welcome Michael Sabbah, Palestine’s Patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church, who had to pass through a military checkpoint in the Separation Wall to address the crowd.
Salah Al-Tamari, the Governor of Bethlehem, said celebrating Christmas under occupation is a form of resistance.
<Salah Ta’amari’s clip>
Part of the determination to celebrate is to defy the wall, the gates, land confiscation and the daily Israeli invasions.  In fact these issues affected tourism negatively.  The tourism sector is very fragile, any incident can badly affect it, so how about the wall, the checkpoints and the complex procedures at the crossing point.
Suicide Bombing in the West Bank
A Palestinian man blew himself up at an Israeli portable checkpoint near Tulkarem, killing one soldier and three Palestinian civilians, and inflicting a number of additional injuries.  Israeli jeeps and ambulances rushed to the scene, closed off the area, and imposed curfew on all of Tulkarem.  Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.
Adnan Hattab a journalist from Tulkarem, described the bombing.
< Adnan Hattab’s clip>
"The incident took place at a portable checkpoint, few meters close to a main military checkpoint that leads to Israeli areas.  Apparently a Palestinian young man in his twenties with a beard who was riding a Palestinian car, blew himself up after the Israeli soldiers stopped the car, and asked him to get out and take off his Jacket.  The explosion killed three Palestinians and one Israeli soldier and wounded many others."
Separation Wall
The Israeli High Court has ordered the Israeli army to halt construction of a section of the Separation Wall from the Maaleh Adumim Settlement bloc to Jerusalem.  The section of the Wall had been routed to cut through the Palestinian city of Al-Ezariyya.
The court’s decision came shortly after John Doughard, a South African Professor of International Law, submitted a report to the United Nations detailing the effects of the Wall on the city’s inhabitants.  The Wall would cut the city in half.  Of its 230,000 inhabitants, 55,000 would find themselves separated from the rest.  In addition, 50,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel would find themselves barred from Israel.  Most are former residents of Jerusalem who were forced to leave when Israel refused to grant them building permits.
Meanwhile, resistance in the West Bank village of Bil’in is still going strong.  The army attacked this Friday’s group of Palestinian, Israeli, and international peace activists with batons, injuring five and arresting three, when they attempted to reach nearby olive orchards.
Israeli Army Bombs Gaza, Expels Civilians
In the Gaza Strip, it appears that the Israeli army is taking the place of the evacuated settlers.  After bombing residential areas in the northern Gaza Strip and injuring an unarmed civilian this Wednesday evening, the army invaded, expelling the residents and occupying the area.  The army called the occupied area a ‘buffer zone’ and claimed its purpose was to prevent Palestinian guerillas from firing homemade shells  into Israel. 
But it was unclear what threat the makeshift shells pose to Israel.  Lacking the capacity to aim, the vast majority of them have landed far from residential areas, and have been launched only in response to Israel’s extrajudicial assassinations, which are illegal under international law.
Gaza Gunmen Seize Buildings, Demanding Jobs, Electoral Reform
Gunmen in Gaza continued to lay siege to government buildings and election offices this week.  Members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades took over north Gaza’s governor office, demanding jobs in the security forces.
And in Khan Younis, dozens of gunmen loyal to jailed legislator Marwan Barghouthi stormed the city’s election offices, attempting to prevent the ruling Fatah party from registering its revised list of candidates for the January elections.
The revised list attempted to bridge the growing rift between Fatah ‘Old Guards’ like Prime Minister Ahmad Qorei, and ‘Young Guards’ like the jailed Barghouthi.  Barghouthi leads the list, which also includes Prime Minister Ahmad Qorei and Cabinet member Nabil Shaath. The gunmen demanded the old time politicians run in their own districts, as stipulated by an agreement between the two groups reached last week.
Settlement Expansion continues in the West Bank
In violation of the terms of the U.S. brokered Road Map to which Israel is a signatory, the Israeli Housing and Construction Ministry gave the green light this week for the construction of 228 housing units in two West Bank settlements near Bethlehem.  The permits had been caught up in bureaucracy for five years.
In further violation to the Road Map, the Israeli army issued orders to confiscate 60 acres of farmland from small farming towns near the West Bank city of Hebron.  The land will be transformed into a network of Israeli settlements; iron gates and meters-high roadblocks will enclose any remaining Palestinian areas, turning them into ghettos.  Israeli Minister of Agriculture Israel Katz, who approved the orders, justified the move by saying the lands were ‘state owned’.
Meanwhile, hundreds of settler youth, many of whom were evacuated from Gaza during the August pullout set up 14 outposts in the West Bank.  Israeli officials said the outposts were illegal and would be removed, but so far no action has been taken.
International Non-Violence Conference Convenes in Bethlehem
Three-hundred-and-fifty people from around the world, representing a broad platform of institutions, religions and social sectors, have gathered to participate in a three-day-long International Nonviolence Conference in Bethlehem this week.  Several Palestinian ministers and high officials are participating, as well as Dr. Mubarak Awad, who heads the Nonviolence Center in Washington D.C.  The conference will conclude Friday evening with a mass march to the Separation Wall in Bethlehem.
Israeli Parties Prepare For Elections
In Israel, the Labor Party and Ariel Sharon’s new Kadima Party, laid out their strikingly similar agendas this week, each one competing for voters.
The parties are unified in their rejection of negotiations on the status of Jerusalem, or talks with Hamas.  Both refuse to evacuate large settlement blocs in the West Bank, notably Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion, and Ariel, and call for the dismantling of illegal outposts at some unspecified time in the future.
However, Labor additionally wants to adopt Great Britain and China’s example regarding Hong Kong.  Labor proposes to compensate the Palestinian Authority with money or territory in exchange for the settlement blocs it wants to keep. 
On the other hand, Kadima proposes to follow the Road Map, but only as interpreted by Ariel Sharon.  Unlike Labor, Sharon has rejected out of hand all negotiations on the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees to their land, reaffirmed his commitment to a Jewish majority in Israel, and promised to increase settlements in the West Bank.
And that’s just some of the news this week in Occupied Palestine.  For to-the-minute updates, you can visit WWW.IMEMC.ORG. In Beit Sahour, I’m Terrina Aguilar